“And how, my lord, did you come to reside in this plated armor?”
I heaved a deep breath. “That is a much more complicated tale, dear girl.”
“I have nowhere that demands my presence at this time.”
“Very well.” I stared into the rippling water. My reflection, a distorted, snaky visage, stared back at me. I shifted my gaze to the reflection of the Child. “About seven years ago, I came upon the chance of a lifetime. A neighboring empire had begun to wage war with us, and had been viciously defeated in the last battle. I grew haughty and determined to add that kingdom onto my own. I knew we could not be defeated.
“I was so swelled with pride. I reveled in the enjoyment of it all for some time, but then I began to grow bored. I wanted some excitement, so I sent a regiment of poorly trained soldiers into a battle so I could make sport of them. I stood at a distance, watching them be slaughtered, giving not a thought to the fact that these men had families—wives, children,” I looked down at my forelegs and a large tear rolled down my snout and stopped, dangling on my chin. I blinked and the tear splashed onto my claws. I looked back up at the Child. “And I sat there on my high horse, laughing.”
The girl bit her lip as tears welled in her own eyes. She looked down at the blossom and twirled it by its stem absentmindedly. I sighed, hot steam rushing from my nostrils. “Finally, near nightfall, I began to grow weary. So I sounded my horn, giving the signal to retreat. The remaining soldiers scurried back, stumbling from exhaustion. As they gathered around me, I counted them. Out of all the men I sent out, at least a hundred, only twenty-three remained. And I didn’t care. I turned and spurred my horse, leaving the men to find their own way home. So what if they never returned? They were expendable, I thought.
“That night I tossed and turned. My mind was restless and would not allow my body to slip into silent repose. I got up and wandered the halls for a while and then lay back down. I had finally calmed down a little and was just beginning to fall asleep, when I sensed that something was amiss. I felt a dampness against my cheek and opened my eyes. A mist had filled the room, thick and white. A ghostly figure stood before me, shrouded in a cloak of fog. He had a kind face, yet his eyes were unbelievably sad. He grasped my hand and pulled me up. I stood before him, dumbstruck. I puzzled over it for a brief moment, then decided that it was simply a dream. I drew myself up and looked him defiantly in the eyes. ‘What do you want, spirit?’ I asked. He simply smiled.” I chuckled, remembering. “I hated that smile. It was full of pity and sorrow. I felt like he was belittling me. I grew furious. I needed no sympathy from others. But before I could protest, he spoke. All he said was, ‘Come.’ His voice was hypnotizing. I was enchanted. Before I realized what was happening, he had pulled my by the hand to the center of the room. He brought his free hand up above our heads and waved it around us both. My room dissolved in a flash of sparkling light. What stood in its place when the light faded was this valley.”
The Child’s eyes grew wide with curiosity. “Truly, my lord?”
“Truly, dear one. I turned to the man, saying, ‘Where are we?’ ‘The Valley,’ was his reply. ‘Why are we here?’ I asked, prodding him for more information. ‘We are here for you. You actions have been wicked these last years. It is time for you to see that. But remember -- not all men have an opportunity to change in their lives.’ As he was speaking, I remember that my arms and legs had begun to ache terribly. My head swirled and I collapsed to my knees. The man continued speaking. ‘I was sent to you from on High, to show you the errors in your ways. You have allowed the Enemy to capture your mind; his wooing has earned your heart. And now you will see what you have become.’
“Darkness began to emanate from within me. My head throbbed wretchedly and my limbs began to burn. Claws sprouted from my fingertips, from my toes. My skin thickened and scaly, dry patches appeared. Spines shot front my back, tearing my nightshirt. I doubled over, screaming in pain. I writhed on the ground, feeling my body twist and change. As soon as my skull felt as if it was about to explode, it stopped. I just lay there, feeling as if I had the weight of the entire world upon my back. I tried to rise, but I couldn’t move. ‘What have you done to me?!’ I shouted. I retaliated when I heard my own voice. I still do.
“I looked all around for the man, but he was gone. I was sure by now that it was a dream. But, over the next few days, when I still had not awakened, I came to a different conclusion. I don’t know how long ago that was, for I stopped trying to keep track of the time. But over the days and weeks, I began to think more and more about what the man had said. I began to realize what I was. I had taken on the clothing of a crafty serpent, the very image of the Enemy himself.”
I had finished my tale. The Child stood, tucked the lily into the belt of her gown, and stepped lightly around the greenery growing near the edge of the pool. She came close to me and laid her hand upon my brow. Her touch was warming; it felt good on my cool scales. “Dragon,” she said. “I shall now tell you the true reason why you drink of this water.” She kneeled at the edge, her hand now lingering on my jowls. “Look.”
I hesitantly turned my gaze downward. There it was again. That wretched snake. “Ah,” she said. “You do not wish to see the evidence of your sins. Am I correct?”
I grunted. “You are.”
“Yet, you return to this pool, day after day. Why? You know that it will cause you pain.”
“Ah, yes, but if I am to survive, I must endure that pain. I tried forsaking the water once. I shall never attempt that again.”
“So you admit that you need the water? Even if it tells you things you do not wish to be reminded of?”
Was this girl daft? How many times would I have to repeat it? “Yes, Child,” I said, a little more forcefully than I meant to. “Yes, I need the water.”
In the reflection, I saw her smile softly. She began to speak again, yet as if to herself. “In the water, you see who you truly are. When you begin to look through the water, you see other things as they truly are. It is through the water, the Living Water, that all things are.” She turned to me. “Have you ever heard of the Living Water?”
“Living Water? No, never. Will you tell me?” I was humoring her now. I could see, clear as the pool itself, that she wanted more than anything to tell me of this Water.
“Yes,” she said, her face and eyes alive with passion. “The Living Water is the one thing that can truly fill thirsty souls. It quenches not only the body, but also the spirit. Once you partake of this Living Water, once you truly partake of it, your soul will never thirst again. Much like this water in front of us, it will fill you so that the only things you will ever need are manifested in it.”
“A pool where I shall only have to drink once?” I asked, thrilled at this notion. “Please, take me to it! I shall never have to see my reflection again!”
“It is not a physical pool, my lord. But it is real. This Water will not only fill you, but cleanse you, as only the Living Water can. It washes away the stains of your inmost being, turns scarlet sins into radiant righteousness. It calms your guilty conscience, and it will direct you from that point on. And, best of all, all you have to do is accept it. Take the Living Water, and douse your soul from head to foot. It will satisfy. It offers hope, forgiveness, and an eternal home in paradise, if only you will accept it. Drink deeply of this Water, Dragon. Drink, and you shall be enslaved by the Enemy no longer. The Giver of this Water, the Creator of all things, He who set everything in motion, will deny no one. You will shed your scales and splash in the cool fountains of His love, forever.”
I simply stared. Was what she was saying true? Cleansed? Forgiven? Forever? Was it too good to be true? Perhaps. But … it was something. Something that seemed to emanate peace. And peace was what I wanted — needed --, oh, so desperately!
“Child,” I said, with renewed interest. “How can I find this Water?”
“As I said before, my lord, it is not a tangible object. It is a gift, something you must ask of the Giver and then accept. Only then shall you begin to truly see.”
This was no longer a mere conversation. This was a life-changing discovery. I could truly be forgiven! Suddenly, I knew in my heart that all this Child was saying was true. “Yes,” I said reverently. “Yes, and ask I shall.”
It was then, as I closed my eyes and began to pour out my heart to the Giver of this Water, that I did begin to see. I also began to feel—to feel the weight of so many burdens lifted from my shoulders. With tears now running down my cheeks, I lifted my head and let out a long, triumphal cry. I was finally free.
The Child laughed, clapping her hands and dancing around. “Now,” she said. “If you wish, you may dive into the pool. Though your soul has been cleansed by the spiritual water, your physical appearance can be washed away by this water.” The Child motioned to the crystal pool at our feet.
“Is it necessary?”
“No. But it will give you a “proof”, a seal to a covenant, if you will, that your new life has truly begun.”
Without another word I dove headfirst into the water. It engulfed me, and no sooner than I had become completely immersed, I felt my body begin to change once more. But it was not painful. It felt like I was taking off a hot, itchy tunic. The water felt wonderful against my newly bared flesh. My claws disappeared, my spines shrunk and my face smoothed out. Again, this transformation took only a short while. When I felt complete, I broke the surface. I laughed with joy. After so long, trapped in that heavy armor, I now felt extremely light. I looked for the Child. I needed to thank her.
She was gone. I swam to the side of the pool and hoisted myself up over the edge. As I stood, a sudden, glowing radiance caught my eye. I looked down. My entire body was covered in a golden shroud of light. It shimmered and undulated, forming itself around my body. It settled and I felt the sudden weight of fabric against my skin. The light had formed itself into a golden robe. I patted the cloth, feeling its silky smoothness caress my flesh.
“Do you like it?”
I jerked my head up at the sound of the voice. The gentle, hypnotizing, familiar voice. There, before me, stood the man. Then man that had brought me to this place.
My stomach fluttered and my throat caught. I only nodded, for fear that my voice would crack.
He stepped closer to me until we stood eye to eye. “You have repented of your sins, and overcome the test. Well done, my son.” He extended his hand, offering it to me. “Will you come, and set right the wrong you left behind?”
I drew myself up and placed my hand in his. “I will.”
He brought his free hand up and waved it above us. As the valley disintegrated in a falling shower of light, I caught a glimpse of the man’s emerald eyes, chestnut hair, and the lily tucked into the belt of his tunic.